The Link Between Employability and Academic Rankings

By Martin Ince

Senior representatives of the three main global university rankings and the newest arrival on the scene came together for the first time at a conference in London jointly organised by the IREG Observatory on University Ranking and the QS Intelligence Unit.

The discussion of future developments in rankings formed part of the IREG-7 meeting, the seventh major conference held by the global accreditation group. QS’s are the only international rankings to have been accredited so far. The session featured the new U-Multirank publication, as well as QS, the Shanghai Ranking Consultancy and Times Higher Education.

Gero Federkeil, representing U-Multirank, explained that U-Multirank is not a ranking: instead it is a way of comparing universities at large, or in specific subjects, on criteria ranging from research to civic engagement. At present it covers just four subjects (mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, physics and business), but more are promised. Psychology, medicine and computer science will be added next.

More than 170 people from 42 nations took part in the two days of debate at University College London. The 35 platform speakers ranged over the full range of issues raised by the national and international ranking of universities. But most touched on the specific theme of the conference, the link between employability and academic rankings.

With this emphasis in mind, the first major session began with presentations not from rankers but from employers. Three – Shell, Siemens and Airbus – recruit from universities around the world, and spoke fascinatingly about their efforts to promote diversity and inclusion in the student body they choose from. The fourth body represented, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, is proud to approach the topic of graduate employability from a different angle. As a self-confessed less glamorous destination for the ambitious graduate, the company recruits from a full range of UK universities and in all subjects.

Despite these big differences, all four employers agreed that they are after business-savvy graduates who are literate, numerate, and know how to operate in a work setting. One speaker, Beth Jenkins from Shell, even brushed off a question about the technical abilities of graduates, saying that the subject knowledge of university leavers has never been an issue. Instead, she is more inclined to be impressed by quantifiable evidence of success in a non-academic project. The audience was left in little doubt that while these recruiters read rankings, their hiring practices make use of a far wider range of information than rankings currently capture. In particular, there is no simple metric that captures the ability of a university to produce future leaders.

Despite these issues, delegates were left in no doubt that rankings drive university managers in creative ways. Euiho Suh of POSTECH and Han Soo Kim of Sejong University, both in Korea, described their approach to this task. They use a “Curability-Weakness Diagram” to map how far their universities are from an acceptable performance on specific rankings criteria (weakness), and how feasible it is to improve on that measure (curability). This approach drives university managers to concentrate their fire on the biggest and most tractable issues.

However, perhaps the conference’s biggest tribute to the success of university rankings was paid by Chiara Mio and Achille Giacometti, both based at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice in Italy.

They made the case that environmental sustainability is a neglected aspect of university performance, despite the existence of measures such as GreenMetric  which aim to capture environmental achievement at campus level. And they suggested that sustainability be added to existing rankings, in the hope of getting university managers to take it more seriously.

As Ben Sowter, director of the QS Intelligence Unit, put it, it is one thing for us to rank universities on important aspects of their behaviour, but quite another to measure them on things that we wish they were more serious about. That way lies the prospect of rankings as social engineering. Do we want a mediocre university to decide it can up its ranking by spending money on solar panels, or on better professors?

The highlights of IREG-7 will soon be online at The conference concluded with Jan Sadlak, president of IREG, announcing that IREG’s next event, on university subject rankings, will be at Aalborg University in Denmark in June 2015.

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